Things I Thought I Knew — Part 1: Supreme Court Facts

When I was teaching an undergraduate research class on the Constitution, I would sometimes give the students this assignment:  Find a Supreme Court opinion making a constitutional argument that relies on a factual statement.  Then go do the research and see if the facts that are necessary to the argument are accurately stated.  At the outset, I thought the Court’s batting average would be pretty high, but that wasn’t necessarily the case.

Take, for example, the Everson case where Justice Rutledge read the establishment clause in light of James Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance because of Madison’s “authorship” of the religion clauses and the fact that the First Amendment was the “direct culmination” of the struggle for religious freedom in Virginia.

Does the documentary record support Rutledge’s factual claims about the religion clauses?  The answer, at least in my view, is somewhere between “no” and “not really.”  But this isn’t just an academic research exercise or a chance to say, “Gotcha.”  It’s a question about what makes a persuasive constitutional argument.

This what-are-the-real-facts issue might seem to be narrowly focused on originalist arguments, since they need to cite the historical record showing the Constitution’s original meaning (whether they are “Old” Originalist arguments focused on the framers or “New” Originalist ones about the “public meaning” of the text).  But even non-originalist justices sometimes rely on economics, sociology, psychology and other academic fields.  In those cases, we can ask whether the justices are fairly representing the state of scholarship, or are they engaging in a bit of “law office social science.”

So what if the Court is wrong, or if, perhaps, it over-interprets a bit?  That’s a deeper question, but I tend to side with the distinguished Princeton professor, Edward Corwin, who said (in 1951) in connection with the Supreme Court’s landmark church-state cases, “the Court has the right to make history [but] it has no right to make it up.

Don Drakeman

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